Friday, December 14, 2018

Plans For The Winter Solstice - Part 1


"Early nightfall. Crisp mornings. The sharp silhouette of leaf-bare branches. Orion marching across the evening sky. These are some familiar signs of winter. We often speak of turning inward during these darker months, becoming quiet and introspective, staying home more often, sleeping longer. Yet there’s another side to winter that contrasts with our natural inclination to rest and contemplate—a side that insists we shop til we drop, eat and drink more than we care to, and rush around busy airports. Regardless of our spiritual or cultural heritage, if we live in North America today there’s a good chance we find ourselves caught up, perhaps involuntarily or out of habit, in a commercial swirl known as “the holidays” that leaves us depleted in more ways than one."

- Susan Wasinger, Mother Earth Living

Enter, the winter solstice, which will officially arrive on December 21 at 5:23 p.m. For reasons I can't really explain, this is, perhaps, my favorite day of the year.  There are many days that hold special, personal meaning to me, and this is definitely one of them! I love Christmas and all that it entails, but there is just something about the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year, that is special to me.

We have observed this day over the years with various, simple celebrations, but as the girls have grown up, my celebrations have become much more personal in nature. Building upon the traditions of the past and adding a few new, "just for me" touches,  I have made the observance and celebration of this day, for the most part, very much my own.  And so today, I thought I would take some time to share some of these traditions, both past and present, in the hopes that you might be inspired to indulge in your own celebrations. I will warn you now, this post is LONG, and it's only Part 1! Did I mention this was one of my favorite days? But before I get into the how to celebrate, lets first begin with why.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year, meaning there are less hours of daylight and more hours of darkness on this day than on any other. This is in contrast, of course, with the summer solstice when there are more hours of daylight and less hours of darkness, the longest day of the year.  The word solstice comes from two Latin words: sol meaning "sun" and sistere meaning “to stand still” because it appeared as though the sun and moon had stopped moving across the sky. Many years ago, in fear that the days might be becoming darker and that the the sun might never return, our ancestors began observing a number of customs that were designed to hopefully entice the sun from departing.

I love what Richard Heinberg has to say in his book, Celebrating the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony

"This longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. In this way, celebrating the solstice can be a beautiful remembrance that our lives are part of a larger order, always changing, always renewing."

Following are some ways that you and yours can celebrate this lovely day,  just as our ancestors have done for many years. I've included some personal notes on how we/I have celebrated and will continue to celebrate. Rituals and traditions ground us, at least they do for me! No matter how the dynamics and make-up of our family may change, ("always changing") with children growing up and moving on, traditions remain the same, and with a little thought and tweaking, the old can become new again, (always renewing)!

THE BATTLE OF THE HOLLY KING AND THE OAK KING

One story tells of the battle of the Holly King (The King of Winter/Darkness) and The Oak King (The King of Summer/Light).  This battle takes place twice a year, on the summer and winter solstice,
At the summer solstice (around June 21—the longest day and the shortest night) the days begin to shorten and the Holly King defeats the Oak King and reigns supreme in the dark times (or days getting shorter). But in December, following the winter solstice, the days begin to lengthen and the Oak King conquers the Holly King and reigns during the light times.  As odd as it seems, the winter solstice actually welcomes summer, as with each successive day the light gradually increases and the days become longer. And then in the summer the opposite happens, and the days following the summer solstice gradually become shorter, welcoming winter.  There is a lovely children's book that I'll reference in my follow up post, that it explains it so beautifully! I can't wait to share it with you!

Though I have never done so, I think it might be sweet to make a couple of peg dolls in the form of the Holly King and the Oak King,  adorned with a little holly crown and perhaps another made of tiny acorns.  You could display them on a shelf, perhaps,  and share the story of the battle of the two kings with your children or grandchildren.  The reigning king would then take his place of honor and reign over his respective season, while the other is tucked away until it is time for battle once again.

❅ SOLSTICE BONFIRES

Many traditions include a bonfire, and this is one that we observed a few times over the years.  The idea is that the offering of warmth and light might appeal to the sun to warm the earth once again. One custom suggests that each person write down one habit they want to rid themselves of in the coming year and throw it into the bonfire. If you do decide to build a bonfire, it might be fun to make up some of the these spicy fire starters in the days before your celebration. It willt make your start up a little easier, and the fire starters themselves are quite lovely!

❅ THE SOLSTICE SPIRAL

The solstice spiral is one my favorite observances for this most special day, and is a celebration of the return of the light!  Solstice spirals are popular in Waldorf schools, and you can read about that, here for context.

I do a much smaller table top version for my observance, using apples with white birthday candles, and in a pinch, I have also used tea lights and the presentation was just as lovely. I typically set it out on the kitchen table the night before so that it serves as a sweet reminder that we are cycling into a new season. This helps to build the anticipation, especially for young children. Then when the sun sets, I light the candles and allow them burn for awhile, illuminating our own little celebration of the return of the sun.

❅ A WINTER SOLSTICE WALK

This is a new tradition that I began last year and I plan to make it a regular part of my observance. Thankfully we live in an area that is plentiful with woods, and it makes for a lovely setting. Last year I went early in the afternoon to soak in the last rays of sunshine before the early darkness set in. But this year I am considering going out about thirty or forty five minutes before sunset. I like the idea of returning to the warmth and shelter of home, lighting the candles on my solstice spiral, and then enjoying a festive meal, which I'll share more about below!  If you do decide to make your own solstice spiral, large or small, going on a walk might also serve the purpose of collecting some greenery. And now, about my meal plans!

Traditionally, I always make a big pot of Grammy's Cabbage Soup.  Everyone in our family loves this hearty soup, which I really consider more of a stew, it's much heartier!  Although I was considering trying out this recipe, Crock Pot Cranberry Orange Pork Tenderloin, I think I might save it for the new year and stick with tradition. There is just something about keeping the menu simple that appeals to me, and I like the **homeyness** of a pot of stew. I think I'll find a nice loaf of bread and serve it up with a cheese spread. Once I have the particulars of my menu figured out, I'll post more about that.

But regardless of the main course, it wouldn't be the winter solstice without gingerbread and lemon sauce! Gingerbread conjures memories from my childhood, when my grandmother would make it for me every time we visited! I especially enjoy it during the long winter months, and traditionally make it for the time each season for the winter solstice.

❅ GINGERBREAD WITH LEMON SAUCE

Ginger is a favorite solstice and holiday spice, and gingerbread is a favorite from my childhood.  My grandmother made it for me often, and I always think of her when I make it today. And though I enjoy gingerbread throughout the year, I traditionally always make a loaf on the winter solstice.  Here's the recipe I have used for years.

GINGERBREAD
 Butter (for the pan)
 Flour (for the pan)
 2 cups flour
 1 cup molasses
 3/4 cup buttermilk
 1/2 cup sugar
 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
 1 egg
 1 teaspoon baking soda
 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
 1/2 teaspoon salt Confectioners’ sugar (for sprinkling)

 1. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square pan, and dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess.

 2. In an electric mixer, combine the flour, molasses, buttermilk, sugar, butter, egg, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and salt.

3. With mixer set on its lowest speed, beat until blended, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase speed to medium and beat for 2 more minutes, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl.

4. Transfer the batter to the pan. Bake for 1 hour or until top springs back when pressed lightly with fingertip. Cool on a rack. Cut into squares and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Serve with lemon sauce.

 LEMON SAUCE
 2/3 cup sugar
 2 tablespoons cornstarch
 1/4 teaspoon salt
 2 cups cold water
 1 egg, lightly beaten
 Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons

 1. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt.

2. Slowly add the water and egg. With a heatproof spatula, stir constantly until the mixture just comes to a boil and thickens.

3. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Stir in the lemon rind and juice.

 4. Serve with gingerbread.

And while spiced cider has been our traditional beverage of choice, this year I'm giving serious consideration to this recipe for winter lemonade!  I may do dual service and enjoy a cup of cider over tea earlier in the day.

Another observance I began last year is eating dinner by candlelight.  In todays world, illuminated by  gadgets and technology, and faces aglow with constant media all hours of the day and night, the winter solstice is an opportunity to pause and give tribute to the natural rhythms of life.

And NOW, I am going to close and I will continue in a second post with some ideas for crafting, books to read and enjoy, as well as the recipe for the soup I mentioned above!  Two recipes in one post is just making this too long, even for my "wordy" self.

Until then, my friends!  I pray your day is blessed!

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